Introduction to True Use of Arms

I am particularly looking forward to working my way through True Use of Arms due to Wyrley’s background as an officer of the London College of Arms. Presumably, he knew his stuff. However, it’s likely that he wrote True Use of Arms well before his tenure with the College of Arms. He evidently showed a knack for heraldry from an early age. This talent may have gotten him the job he later held taking diction for the antiquary and genealogist Sampson Erdeswicke, though the fact that both men were from Staffordshire probably didn’t hurt either.

It was probably during his tenure with Erdeswicke that he did most of the research that eventually became True Use of Arms (or, to give it its proper and very long title, The true Use of Armorie, shewed by Historie, and plainly proved by Example). The book – more of an essay, really – was originally published in London in 1592. Two years later, Wyrley graduated from Balliol College in Oxford, where he had continued his studies in antiquity. In 1604, James I of England appointed him Rouge Croix pursuivant, and he would continue to serve in that office until his death in 1618. I’m fairly confident that he wouldn’t have been appointed as one of the thirteen official heraldic officers of the kingdom if he didn’t know what he was talking about, and that opinion seems to have been shared by others during his life; he was “a knowing and useful person in his profession.”

The four pursuivants of the College of Arms were, and are, the most junior of the officers; above them are the six Heralds of Arms, and above them, the three Kings of Arms. While the Kings and Heralds of Arms take their titles from various regions, orders, and dukedoms, the pursuivants are more colorfully named after heraldic badges used by English monarchs: the portcullis of the Tudors, the red dragon of Wales, the blue mantle of the French arms (when England was still claiming their right to rule France), and the red cross of St. George.

Despite Wyrley’s bona fides during his lifetime, True Use of Arms was orphaned for a little while after his death. William Dugdale, the early medieval historian (as in, one of the first people to formally study medieval history) reprinted part of True Use of Arms in his 1682 Ancient Usage of Bearing Arms – but he attributed the work to Wyrley’s old master Erdeswicke. I’m not sure when the mistake was rectified, but Dugdale’s contemporary Anthony Wood did question the attribution at the time.

Unfortunately, I do not have access to many sixteenth-century manuscripts, so I will be working from a reprint of True Use of Arms, published in 1853 by John Gray Bell. For better or worse, the reprint omits two long and apparently very dull poems of questionable literary merit that were included in the original printing. Wyrley might’ve been a good herald, but every source I’ve found, including fellow heraldic author James Dalloway, insists he was a pretty terrible poet. If you’re looking for “The Glorious Life and Honorable Death of Sir John Chandos, Lord of St. Saluiour” or “The Honorable Life and Languishing Death of Sir John de Gralhy, Capitall of Buz,” I’m afraid you’ll have to look elsewhere. However, if you’re curious about what, exactly, the true use of arms is, we’ll dive into that next week.


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